Across the continent again …. because we can!

Cooter 11-24-2015

Happy Canada Day, everyone! It’s the 150th birthday of our great nation, and a plethora of party-people are heading for our great nation’s great capital. As usual, the Ottawa branch of Clan Chepita is swimming against the current – we left Ottawa for Hamilton yesterday, whizzing past a line of cars crawling from Ajax to the NCR. Under Murphy’s Law, road trip sub-section, at least 75% of the people trapped in that slow-slithering metal snake had to pee, and the other 25% were desperate for cold pop or a smoke or simple delivery from their fellow vehicular denizens. 

We are spending Canada Day with Ryan’s parents. Ron and Pat love it when we mess up their sheets and bathrooms, eat their food and drink their booze. They love it. At least, that’s what they say, though not in those particular words. Something more along the lines of “so glad you guys are here” – but we won’t get hung up on semantics.

Tomorrow, we hit the road for …. well, somewhere. It’s our annual big-ass road trip! We’re thinking Idaho, because Idaho – but, of course, it could be anywhere. We’ll know by the time it’s all over. Road trip preparation used to be alot tougher, tripping over toddlers while shoving our entire life into suitcases and bags. Now, though, Fiona and Bridget pack for themselves. Big kids for the win!

Wherever I go, I will apply my sharp eyes and restless pen to everything around me. I brought you Kansas, Texas and Georgia – and I’ll do the same with wherever we end up this time. Every lovely little diner, hole-in-the-wall Mexican delight, ice cream break-down, weird conversation, odd who-knew attraction, shitty motel and breath-taking view. Ciao for now!

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Georgia is still on my mind.

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So, we’re back from our road trip …. I left my millions thousands hundreds possibly-double-digits of fans hanging with my farewell post about a month ago. I was feeling overwhelmed by the headlines, and really needed to get away. Well, I don’t think the world has improved since then – but my state-of-mind has. I guess I just needed to get away.

As we always do, we packed up our car with too much of everything and headed for the never-known-to-fail McDonald’s breakfast kick-off. Then, we hit the road. It was a brilliantly beautiful day – the sky was a perfect shade of blue, punctuated by puffy white clouds and a sun like the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball”. Retro Casey Kasem from 1971 gave us “Hot Pants”, from Georgia boy James Brown. (Take a moment to enjoy the Godfather of Soul in all his sweaty, bouffant, bare-chested glory. It’s on me.) We came across a cute little park, where we stopped to eat our everything-that-won’t-last-and-can’t-be-frozen picnic lunch, consisting of items like a lone banana, an entire bag of carrots and sandwiches with way too much ham on them. After a romp on the playground equipment, we were driving again, and sharing a brief snicker about the overly earnest, children’s-bookish town name “Constableville”. This year, we’ve introduced the concept of Fiona and Bridget having control of the radio for a half-hour each. Fiona ventures into rock and alternative occasionally, but Bridget is firmly a pop fan. So, we heard Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” three times in one day. We would go on to hear it about twenty more times over the next couple of weeks. We settled in a Best Western Plus in Johnson City, New York. The pool was set up for lane-swimming, so we occupied a lane to cool down. We got a few dirty looks, but we were behaving – so who cares? We had dinner at Ground Round, with its endless popcorn, and talked about how much we loved being on the road again.

We had good intentions of attending mass the next morning, but Piggy (a stuffed pig with a ribbon around her neck that Bridget bought Fiona with a handful of change at a white elephant sale years ago) was missing. We couldn’t leave without her. She had apparently spent the night in a lost-and-found bin after being dropped in the parking lot the day before. After recovering Piggy, we hit Pennsylvania with its rolling green mountains and farmland. I enjoyed the perfect lunch – a buttery, crispy grilled cheese sandwich, creamy tomato soup and a giant dill pickle – at Country Friends Café. We entered rural Maryland to Luke Bryan’s awfully cheesy “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”. The general consensus in the car was that country music (well, this branch of it, anyway) is no good. I disagree, and – as you may have noticed – I firmly believe I’m right. In Frederick, we stopped rolling, and checked into a Motel 6. The girls and I enjoyed a swim (Ryan often uses that time to be alone, aloneness being scarce on road trips). We sank gratefully into the cool water after a hot day of travelling. Two other families shared the pool with us. One with a sleepy baby who wanted nothing but his mother, and one with a heavily pregnant mother wrangling a toddler who insisted on “fwimming” by himself. I lounged in the sun, occasionally cracking an eyelid to make sure two sleek heads were still above water, and marvelled at how things change. I remember well when I had a three-year-old and a baby hanging off me, both of them petrified of the water and seemingly trying to drown me and each other at every turn …. Dinner was at an expensive steakhouse called Red Horse, but the crab cakes and garlic mashed potatoes were amazing – so I forgive them. Much as I try to stay away from current events while on the road, over Starr Hill’s taster pack that evening, Ryan and I couldn’t help but discuss Baton Rouge. The harsh reality of being black in America, the gut-wrenching terror of being a cop in a country where anyone could be packing heat and you have a target on your back.

The next morning, after driving into Virgina fueled on eyeball-burning, hair-sprouting motel coffee, we hit a farmer’s market and bought gorgeous peaches and blueberries

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We had a picnic lunch of gas station fare in the shade, and later a visit to a Tastee Freez (oh, the E abuse) in Gordonsville. At a gas station, a man lounging on a bench asked where we’re from. When he heard we’re from Canada, his eyes grew wide and he said “oh, I know – you guys gonna make them two in the back do some of the drivin'”. In Oxford, North Carolina, (unofficial state motto: “a Baptist church every eight paces”), we checked into the King’s Inn, and ate at George’s Family Restaurant. The star of that meal was the pasta Bridget and I shared. Spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts and chicken came together to make something beautiful.

The next morning, we discovered that Piggy was missing again. This time, she had slept in the parking lot next to a vending machine. This seemed like less of a big deal once I had downed a few slugs of the coffee in my hand. I sometimes wonder if I could quit coffee and be like those freaks who don’t need it. Then, I try to go without it for about three minutes in the morning, and I know I shouldn’t even try. While driving, we heard a commercial for a preschool that allows parents to check in online to get updates and videos throughout the day. Ryan said that’s the next step for parents who have a video moniter, and Fiona elaborated: “that’s for stalker parents who are desperate”. Sadly, I think they’re right – even more sadly, I think there’s quite a market for that sort of thing. Whatever happened to just asking your kids about their day?

Sometime that afternoon, we crossed into the wet, hot, stifling, smothering dirty south. Swimming at our Quality Inn pool, and dinner at Chili’s, were highlights. On the other hand, so was watching cockroaches scuttling in and out of pools of light outside our room later, while enjoying Thomas Creek amber ale. Either we’re easy to please or we’ve been broken down …. ? The end result’s the same, so we won’t worry about it. At the continental breakfast, over a biscuit smothered in sausage gravy, I chatted with a guy about American politics. He shook his head and said “Trump crooked, Clinton crooked. Ever’body crooked. Votin’ like tryin’ to decide which disease we wanna die of.”

We made it to Georgia that morning. The welcome centre was huge, and manned by a woman who did her best to sell her state. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and all four of us excitedly thought of what we might do during the coming days. I gathered my usual collection of maps and brochures to pour over in the car. Our first stop after the welcome centre was another welcome centre: a 200-year-old house (in fact, the oldest house) in Athens. We were looking for Weaver D’s Automatic for the People Café. Many music fans will recognise that phrase …. We toured the house because we could, and moved on. The restaurant was tiny, with no air conditioning – but those industrial fans cooled things down just fine. There were long tables covered with checkered oil cloth, and Weaver D himself was manning both the counter and the fryer. We all had fried chicken. For side items, I chose mac-n-cheese and collard greens. Weaver D’s food was amazing. It was soul food perfection, served with tall styrofoam cups of ice-cold lemonade and fresh, hot cornbread.

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We left Athens for Macon, stopping at a tiny gas station along the way where we bought malt liquor in mason jars (lemon and strawberry flavours). Our beer that night was Hopsecutioner, made by Terrapin of Athens. It was strong, and challenging – and it stood up well to the hot night. The next morning, it lingered in my head a little – but dissipated easily without ruining my visit to the Tubman African American Museum. This collection of memorabilia and art is wonderful, and the museum is arranged well. We watched two short movies, one about Harriet Tubman and one about Rosa Parks (Fiona’s personal hero). Though the stories were filled with cruelty and suffering, they were presented in such a way that they glowed with hope and pride. The music exhibit contained information about Georgia’s many black entertainers – Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Ray Charles. Little Richard’s piano was on display, with a sign that said “do not play Little Richard’s piano – he’ll know.” I joked that perhaps Little Richard himself was in the piano. Fiona gleefully backed me up, and we almost had Bridget believing it.

After a kickin’ chicken sandwich at a Zaxby’s, we were on our way to the coast, passing increasingly swampy land the further south we moved. Dinner was at a Toucan’s Ale House (our first one), where I enjoyed a mouth-watering barbeque sampler plate and some Sweetwater Georgia Brown. We later watched most of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. It is discouraging that this angry, grating, freakishly orange man could one day be America’s president.

The next day, after picking up a Subway picnic lunch, we went in search of one of Georgia’s famous beaches. It took us quite a while to find it, as the signage isn’t great. The drive around St. Simon’s Island was pretty, though – pastel bungalows, and glimpses of a stunning blue ocean through strange, stunted, twisted trees draped with Spanish moss. The girls and I played in the waves, and beach-combed, while Ryan indulged in his favourite beach activity – sprawling to music. The salt water and sun exhausted us before we left the island, so we didn’t go far. Just to Kingsland, the highlight of which was the well of melted butter in the middle of the mashed potatoes I ordered at a Longhorn. Golden, salty, greasy heaven. Munich happened, but I shoved it to the back of my mind. Mass killings are yet another thing from which our road trip allowed me to escape – just for a few days.

The next day was laundry day …. And, as with pretty much everything, laundry is more fun on the road. Begging change in the parking lot, filling dodgy washers from thirty years ago with our nasty, worn-too-many-times clothes – knowing our suitcases will smell fresh for at least a day after the whole process is over. While the ancient dryer scorched our garments, we enjoyed of a dose of “Golden Girls” (the beloved TV trend of last year’s trip). Then, we were off to Albany, the childhood home of Ray Charles. En route, we stopped at a Sonic and drank thick, cold milkshakes while listening to 1973’s retro Casey Kasem. Mine was a peanut butter fudge shake, and I really can’t think of anything that would have improved it. That night, drinking our way through a Sweetwater taster pack, we discovered a series called “The Sixties” that kept us up late. Who knew that there were people other than JFK shot the day he died? Well, ok, possibly American history buffs knew. And people who lived through it. And many others. Maybe this is something only Ryan and I didn’t know – but we know now. Thank you, CNN and Tom Hanks!

Another Sunday – another failed attempt to attend mass.We found a church, but apparently the schedule on the website was out-dated – the place was empty. We went to a park instead. Not quite a church, but – after all – “the groves were God’s first temples”. These groves were proof that we were a long way from home. The air rang with strange insect and animal noises. There were unfamiliar bugs mating every few steps, and a bat flapping around even though it was mid-day. There was a pond that looked distinctively alligatory (yes, that is a word – I have made it so), and we steered wide of it. We visited an impressive monument to Ray Charles. A statue of Ray playing the piano slowly rotated while his music played continuously. Fountains surrounded the statue, and spreading out in several directions from the statue were walkways painted to look like piano keyboards. Appropriately, the interpretive plaque’s text was presented in both English and Braille.

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After a quick trip to Subway, we were on our way to Florida. After reaching Florida, we stopped at a gas station selling the usual assortment of decorative knives, guns, dust-covered eighties toys, garishly dyed shells – and cold pop. Given that it was 38 ̊ C even before considering the humidity, I felt no guilt about purchasing – and eagerly slugging – a 32 oz diet pop. Shortly after that, driving through Williston, we saw a sign for the unfortunately named delivery business “Big O’s Package”. What were they thinking? Then again, that night we rented a room in the Withlacoochie Motel. Maybe it’s a theme? Though I am unable to say the name of the place without snickering, I have to admit that the Withlacoochie Motel is adorable. (Real keys! On cheap plastic keyrings! Plastic chairs outside every room inviting people to just be!) We had the pool to ourselves, which is – of course – our favourite pool experience. We ate dinner in the slightly-tacky-but-sweet seafood joint next door. Ryan and I introduced Fiona and Bridget to fried alligator, which we enjoyed with a side of Cajun mayo. That night, over tangerine beer (yes, it exists – and it’s good) outside our room, we saw a hercules beetle attempting to plough through a plastic chair, heard a rattler warning us off, and encountered what we are almost certain was a baby bobcat. Nature firmly welcomed us to Florida.

You may be wondering why we went to Florida. Wasn’t Georgia the point of our trip? Well, yes – but we found ourselves with the ability and time to finally visit a place that’s been circling my mind like a plane wanting to land for years: Weeki Wachee. I was introduced to it by the video of a song among Ryan’s Top 500 songs: “Low C” by Supergrass. However, far from the crumbling bygone I was expecting, Weeki Wachee had a line-up around several blocks by 9 a.m., and there was a lot to see and do. We were there for the mermaids, though, and what a show! I’ve loved mermaids for years, and the little girl in me was enthralled.160161

Of course, this being the United States of America, the mermaids were not only graceful, talented and beautiful. They were also patriotic.

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Before leaving, we had our picture taken with the suspiciously dry Mermaid Chelsea.

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After brunch at an IHOP (red velvet pancakes …. *swoon*), we were moving north again, to Valdosta. We checked in to, bizarrely, a building that held both a Super 8 and a Days Inn. After a swim in the mercifully cool and refreshing pool, we had dinner at the Smok’n Pig.. We had ribs, brisket and pulled pork with eight different sauces, as well as seasoned fries and fried okra. The whole meal was amazeballs even before the dessert: peach cobbler topped with pecans and brown sugar, the best of Georgia à la mode.

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That night, we watched Bernie Sanders try to get his adoring fans to join Team Hilary, and then a horrible show about why planes crash. Because, you know, who needs to sleep?

The next night was spent in Carrolton, which we had visited on our honeymoon (thirteen years ago). At that time, we were camping, and there were only two of us. This time, we were in an Econolodge, and we have doubled in number. On our way there, we pulled into one of the tackiest gas stations I’ve ever seen (and that is saying something, given my considerable experience with gas stations of all stripes). There was a stick of burning incense wedged into the lotto ticket machine, and roll-on body oil in at least 25 scents. Fiona and Bridget went to the washroom, and gleefully reported to me that there was a vending machine selling Horny Goat Weed (whatever that is) and Black Jack condoms. After my trip to the washroom, I can confirm that both of these items were for sale – complete with full-colour cartoon illustrations (yes, a cartoon condom with facial features). In keeping with the tone of the joint, I bought a tall can of Natty Daddy malt liquor. 25 oz of booze for $1.89. Ryan said “it’s your head”, but I quite enjoyed it – and my head was fine down the line. The heat was still trapped in the concrete on the ground outside, but we detected the faintest whiff of cool in the air, and we soaked it in.

The next day, there was that funny feeling of things speeding up when you’re on a road trip, that sense of time flying away – a feeling I have never liked. Lunch was at Las Palmas, with good tortilla chips and salsa, and a chicken con queso dish that I adored. In the afternoon, we passed through beautiful mountains with clouds so low it felt like we could have reached up and grabbed them. We ended up in Dalton, “the carpet capital of the world”, and kind of ignored that designation. Our primary interest in Dalton was moonshine. The distillery had been in operation over a hundred years. The owner, complete with ZZ Top beard, was affable and eager.

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He explained how they make moonshine, and how they apply flavours, and offered unlimited samples. He was happy that we are Canadians, saying that Canadians really know how to have fun (“even women”). We tried several flavours – butterscotch, caramel (will someone please tell me the difference between those two things), peach, cinnamon – and some kind of 140 proof barley-based booze that blazed a burning trail down my throat and gave me goosebumps. We couldn’t buy hooch directly from the still, because of local liquor laws – but we could buy a souvenir from them for about $25, and be given a bottle of moonshine as a thank-you for visiting. It will be a real treat some Saturday night to crack the seal on our cinnamon ‘shine ….

That night, we were in Atlanta. Our hotel was just a five-minute walk from Turner Field, and when we got there we were pleasantly surprised: it turns out that if you show up less than 2.5 hours before the game and you agree you’re going straight into the stadium, you get your ticket for $1. For $4, we attended a Braves game! We had hot pizza, cold beer and frozen yogurt for dessert with at least eight kinds of candy on it. It was a relief when the blazing sun went down, since we were sitting directly in it and roasting through the first few innings.

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Next day, we made short work of S0uth Carolina, and ended up at a Days Inn with a beautiful pool and not much else. But if you’ve got kids and it’s blisteringly hot, if you’ve got a pool, you’ve got plenty! We enjoyed a Texas Roadhouse, Buckshot Amber and a show about a serial killer named Felix Vail. No wonder I don’t watch TV generally …. The next day, we ended up with the mixed blessing of a cloudy day, and I determined my outfit by smell-test (something unheard-of in the rosy beginnings of a road trip). So, here I sat in my least-smelly dress, enjoying the mellow feeling in the car and the coffee to go with. In Spring Creek, there were generously-stuffed hoagies, and a deluge of rain. We arrived late to the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, but we made it. A nice feeling …. After that, there was dinner at Los Toltecos, and Double D IPA – and “The Seventies” on CNN on which to geek out.

Our last full day on the road, there was a cool, grey mist through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. For lunch, up a winding mountain, there was Cracker Barrel, one more time. Then there was nothing for the longest time – because the area was so isolated. On every road trip, sometimes more than once, there is that moment when you are pretty sure you’ll have to pee roadside. This was one of those moments. That evening’s dinner was at Friendly’s. A wonderful road trip indulgence, complete with ice cream for four.The next day, we were back in Canada with a border guard saying “welcome back, guys” – and reminiscing about our wanderings. It was great to see that our house was still standing, and have spaghetti on our own patio, and sleep in our own beds – but I have a feeling that, if the option had presented itself, another day on the road would have been eagerly greeted with my second-least-smelly dress and a smile.